‘For Ms. Grenon, thank you for being my Aphra’
Posture is of the utmost importance in school.
Sit up straight. Shoulders back. Chin up. Feet on the floor. Not two inches hovering above. You’re the same height as everyone else.
You are not distracted. You are paying attention. You blend in. You are watching the teacher. You’re not looking at the bluebirds outside.
But I am.
And in the moment that my eyes dart from the teacher to the window, that’s when I’m called out.
We have to take the train.
It speeds under the city at bullet speed. Maybe not quite that fast. But it certainly feels like it once you’re on.
We step onto the train and take two spots, sliding our shoes into the locks in the ground and our arms in the straps that hang from the roof. They’re meant to keep us steady, to prevent us from toppling to the ground when the train lurches to a stop like an animal at a cliff. The only issue is that the locks and straps are made for Caliconians who all measure at 5’4.
This means I am too short.
Chirari’s stares at me, as if this is my fault. Like I decided I was going to be shorter than everyone else. I didn’t. Genetic codes did.
But because of this, I can only put my shoes into the locks and pray that no one else enters the train but us.
No such luck occurs. The train quickly fills with Caliconians, those who have to go to places where there aren’t enough Assemblers to transport them quickly enough.
Our situation is different. We could transport via Assembler. We have one at home. But I, unlike everyone else, can’t use it.
People surround us, stepping into the locks and the straps with perfect motions. They walk in harmony and every motion is simultaneous. Every blink. Every simulated breath. Every twitch of a finger. It’s like a beautiful symphony.
But there is no music here.
When the train begins, I shift. I want to move my feet so I can keep my balance, but they’re locked in place. Chirari doesn’t look at me, but I can feel his disapproval. After that, I try to stand very still and look straight ahead like everyone else. It’s hard, especially when we come above ground and into the sunlight. And when the train stops at our station, I’m not expecting it. I fall over forward and right into the person in front of me. They turn, and so does everyone else, noticing the motion.
Noticing the mistake.
Chirari yanks me back up by the collar of my shirt and drags me towards the doors as they open and the locks on our feet return to the ground. I stumble after him, trying to make him let go, but he won’t. Not until we get home.
Mother isn’t there when we get back. She’ll be at work, but I wish she was there. She’s kinder than Chirari, who only thinks in professional terms. Who wins and who loses. Who does a good job and who fails. Who succeeds and who messes up.
When we finally step inside, he lets go and I fall away from him, stepping back. He stares at me, hands on his waist, silently waiting for an answer.
“There was a bird,” I mumble.
He keeps staring.
“You don’t see birds a lot,” I add quietly.
It’s the last part that sends me to my room for the rest of the day.
Humans are no longer the dominant species in the world. They once were. Today, they make up only twenty or so percent of the ‘Intelligent’ population. There are some in the city, mainly for Science, but not many.
The world is made up of technology. It operates with a flawless balance, relying only on logic and intelligence. Personal bias and emotions are nearly all gone. Sustainability and the greater good are what decides the future.
The people operate like a perfectly oiled machine. For that’s what they are — machines. Every move they make, every step they take, every word they speak — it’s calculated to the exact and manipulated by fake emotions that are meant to mimic human behaviour. It’s so good that it’s almost believable. Except, there’s no one to believe it but the humans who have watched as their culture is assimilated and the creators wiped off the map.
It doesn’t matter, though. There aren’t enough humans to judge Calicone, which is the largest city in the world, and yet it only has a population of about five million, for control purposes. To keep disasters small and the future assured.
Everything must be perfect.
My parents are Caliconians. Powerful ones, too. From day one, they were destined to come together and run the company that creates and distributes Assemblers, machines that transport people by taking their memories and information and transporting it across the city via the internet. Users’ bodies are left behind and new bodies are constructed on the spot with the owner’s memories and data inserted. It’s supposedly a safe, quick process, but I don’t know, for the same reason that I can’t stand on the train properly.
For the same reason I got in trouble at school.
For the same reason Chirari will never approve of me.
My name is Coco Bryte, and I’m human.
Chirari locks me in my room for the rest of the day.
It’s boring in there. The room isn’t made for someone like me.
There is no bed, no books, no toys. Instead, there is a large chair in the middle of the room, a screen for news, and a pristine white shelf that sits on the wall.
The chair is where I sleep. Beds take up too much space and they are impractical because they can only be used for sleeping, whereas this chair can be used for sleeping, sitting, and doing schoolwork.
The shelf is there for housing achievements earned in school. My achievements.
Chirari likes to remind me that it is empty.
I watch TV for the rest of the day, but it’s always the same. News. Someone has taken over the position of someone else. A new company has been created. And the one thing that interests me — discoveries.
Caliconians don’t make discoveries. Humans do. Caliconians can’t think outside the box they were created in — humans can. But only the cleverest, sharpest humans make it as Scientists, the ones who strive to prove they are as good as Caliconians.
There’s a small school, called Designers of the Future, for people like me — humans, striving to be Scientists and to take their place in Caliconian’s limited society. Most children start there very young if they have the resources. It’s an odd place in Caliconian eyes — people act, say, and do what they want there. They’re allowed to think differently — in fact, it’s encouraged.
I know Mother knows about it, but she’s never suggested the idea to me and I don’t dare to ask. If I can get in trouble for looking out a window, I can’t imagine my parents would be open to letting me go to a human school.
But it’s still my dream, even if Chirari says it will never happen.
I can hear the Assembler buzzing outside in the hallway. It’s bringing my mother here. My head perks up from slumping in my seat like a curious dog.
To my disappointment, Mother doesn’t come to see me. She either doesn’t know I’m home or she doesn’t care. As heartless as the latter sounds, it’s the more likely option. When she gets home from work, she does more work until she reaches her daily goal — whatever it is.
No disappointment, I tell myself and try to put myself in that tranquil, emotionless state that Mother trained me to do — a way to disguise that I am not Caliconian.
Mother says it was meant to be that way. She didn’t want me to be Caliconian. Her secondary purpose — for all Caliconians have a purpose — was to adopt a human child and see how it interacts in Caliconian society. The thought makes me feel sad, though I can’t be.
I’m just data, after all.
As the buzz of the Assembler fades, impeccably timed footsteps disappear away from my door. I push a button on my chair with a silent sigh.
The lights go down with my hopes.
The next day is different.
Caliconian children automatically wake up at the same time every day. It’s part of their design. Like human instinct, but more accurate. I have to set an alarm to get up in time and if it doesn’t go off, I’m in trouble.
Which is why I nearly have a panic attack when I wake up to light shining in my eyes and not an alarm going off in my ears.
It takes me about two seconds to jump out of my chair and begin to scramble for the door. I’m just about to turn the handle when it swings open. I jump and stumble backwards, jerking my head up to see Chirari.
He stares at me. It’s scary when he just stares because I don’t know what he’s going to do next.
But it’s not him who moves next. It’s Mother, who steps forward from behind him and towards me.
“Good morning, Coco,” she greets me with an automatic nod. She walks right past me, completely ignoring my fallen form. I stare, not understanding. Isn’t she at work by this time of day?
She goes to my chair and takes a seat. I notice her position — hands on the armrests, flawlessly parallel from one another with her fingertips just touching the curved end of the armrest. The lightest touch.
And it reminds me that I am not.
I realize I’m still on the floor when Chirari begins to close the door with me still sitting against it. He does it with such force that he nearly sweeps me out of the room but I scramble up and slip back inside, stumbling as I go. I stand in front of her and try to look as composed as she does. It’s hard — I don’t know what’s going on. A break in routine is not normal. Not in Calicone, where everything runs on time and in order.
Mother just stares at me for several seconds. It feels as if she’s analyzing my every aspect. I’m suddenly very aware that my hair is not brushed, my nightclothes still on, and my fingernails are overgrown. The littlest of things — I know she’ll notice, and it makes me notice. All I can do is stare back at her and wait, trying not to fidget.
Mother is very pretty in my opinion. She was made that way, with very straight hair the colour of dark chocolate that just folds over her shoulders. Her narrow eyes can be made cheerful, but they are often not and are seated behind black-framed glasses, which are not for eyesight but for the ability to see in the overly dark and light, see thermal imaging and anything else that was not available to her eyes at the time of her creation. Like all Caliconians, she measures at exactly 5’4 feet and her dark grey clothes fit her slender body well, although — with her perfect posture — they do not wrinkle or fold.
I’m not like her — there is no precision to my appearance. I’m 5’2 — shorter than adults, and taller than children my age. This results in problems, for the sizes of Caliconians dictate the market’s clothing measurements, the designs of public transport, furniture, et cetera. I’m also not as slim as her, although I have to try to be because once again, measurements are important in order to fit into the two types of clothing that are manufactured. Meanwhile, Mother’s weight never changes and it is the same as every other Caliconian. The citizens are designed to be thin and short, so to take up less space and thus use less materials.
I’m not pretty. I’m plain and unmemorable, as Chirari tells me. The latter I know is wrong because Caliconian memory banks are nearly infinite.
They remember everything.
So, they will remember that my eyes are too wide, my nose too tall, and my lips too small. The only thing I care for is my hair, and that is because it is like Mother’s. While I did not get it from her, it resembles hers in the sense that it is also very dark and very straight and stops at my chin, effectively framing my face.
I run over all this in my mind as I stare at Mother, silently wishing I could be more like her.
Finally, her face breaks into a smile that appears so fast it is almost alarming. It’s not warm, friendly, or real, but it’s a good sign. It means that her ‘Parent’ mindset is controlling her, and not her ‘Professional’ mindset.
She pats the end of the armrest with her hand in a quick, precise motion. I step forward, knowing what she wants, and place my hand on top of hers. She covers it with her other hand and I watch it silently. It’s a motion that’s meant to be affectionate.
But all I can think about is the program in her mind that’s telling her that patting a child’s hand twice is adequate physical affection.
She keeps my hand locked under hers as she looks at me. If I wasn’t used to this, I would feel uncomfortable. She does not breathe. When she is still, she looks like a statue. Her hand is cold. While Scientists managed to replicate the feel of human skin, they have yet to install the radiation of body heat. Not necessary. Who will feel the warmth?
“Why don’t you tell me what happened yesterday?” she suggests in hushed tones, as if something terrible, traumatizing had occurred. She even goes as far to reach out and stroke the front of my hair, brushing her fingers lightly against the side of my face. Her expression turns concerned.
The story didn’t suit her dramatics. In fact, I had a feeling she already knew.
“I was distracted,” I told her.
She shook her head and withdrew her hand from my face, placing it back on top of my own hand. I can feel her feigned warmth disappearing like the sun behind a cloud. “No, Coco. Your mind wandered. It’s a human habit.”
She likes to say this. Anything I do wrong I do wrong because I’m human. I believe her.
And to enforce this, she adds, “Do you think anyone else was distracted?”
“Then why were you?”
I don’t answer, suddenly feeling sheepish.
I shouldn’t have looked away. It wasn’t that hard, I thought to myself.
“We need to work on this, Coco,” Mother presses. “You will never find a place here in Calicone if you keep going down this track.”
She raised her eyebrows.
I correct myself with hidden dread.
“What do you want me to do?”
It shouldn’t have been called a punishment. It was more of a reward, and I would have jumped for joy if I were allowed.
Mother has arranged for me to learn from a Scientist who believes they are on the verge of a Human-Caliconian scientific breakthrough. Meaning, they think they are close to bringing Caliconians even closer to human standards.
Why Caliconians want to be exactly like the race they quietly pushed out of the world, I don’t know.
The Scientist whom I was going to learn from was named Aphra Selverspun. The exciting yet confusing thing about her is that she, like all Scientists, is human. Like me.
Why would my parents send me to work with a human, when they’re supposed to be punishing me for human behaviour?
I don’t ask. I just agree, and the next day, I’m standing in front of a huge, domed building. There’s a sunroof at the top and I can see a garden behind it, thriving in the glorious, warm light that shines from above. It’s outside the city, in part of the land that is still country, but close enough that there are no humans.
Mother takes me. Somehow, this makes me feel more anxious than if Chirari were taking me. He let me know if I had failed to meet his expectations. With Mother, I could only guess and doubt myself.
The doors slide open upon our arrival and a Caliconian receptionist takes us through to the laboratory.
The main room is beautiful, with old-fashioned marble floors and a high, domed ceiling. Windows stretch across the roof, letting light spill in like water. A huge collection of crystal prisms hang from the center of the ceiling, spinning slowly and causing rainbows to dance across the floor as they catch and transform the light.
On the ground, some of the top technology of today stands. Assemblers, automatic welding stations, advanced 3D creators, and so many more that I can’t name.
Mother is unfazed. I nearly stop and stare, but her head tilts slightly without looking at me and I know she has predicted my instinct. I avoid stopping and walk in time with her. I still feel surprised, but I try to push it all down as I think I sense Mother’s disapproval coming down on me.
At the back of the room sits a young woman behind a desk. She has glasses on and seems to be staring directly at us. But as we get closer, I realize she isn’t. She’s seeing something, with the glasses, that only she can see.
When we are within five meters of her, her head twitches slightly and after a moment, she pulls the glasses off to look at us. I realize this must be Aphra Selverspun.
Her appearance startles me a little because immediately, I can see that she isn’t Caliconian, even if I already knew that. I can’t guess her age — Caliconians’ looks and ages are not related — but I can see that she’s young. Younger than Mother looks, but much older than my twelve-year-old self.
Her eyes are a bright aqua and they’re alert and bright. Black mascara smudges beneath her lash line like she’s been squinting a lot. Her hair is glossy and fair but it doesn’t sit flawlessly like Mother’s. Strands fall out of place, one side is tucked behind her ear, and it’s unpredictably wavy in places. Her skin, too, is different. While Mother’s complexion is flawless and rosy, lines have been made on this woman’s face, lines where her eyes narrow and where the space between her nose and her lips fold when she smiles.
When she smiles.
It feels real. Her facial structure changes when she frowns, beams, or finds something amusing and I find it curious. The only person I’ve seen that happen with is the girl I see in my mirror.
She’s not perfect, but already I like her.
She stands to greet us and walks around our desk.
“Good afternoon!” she greets us, beaming at me. Not only do I feel her enthusiasm, but I feel it is unnatural. But in a good way, a way that draws me even closer to her. “How are you?”
She’s looking at me but Mother answers before I have a chance to speak. “Good afternoon,” Mother says back. Her own smile suddenly looks very fake compared to Aphra’s. “We’re well, thank you. How are you?”
“I’m excellent, thanks!” She glances back at me. There is a bright twinkle in her eyes. It’s full of life and enthusiasm. “You’re Coco, right? I’m Aphra.”
I nod, but once again, Mother speaks for me. “Yes, this is Coco.” She doesn’t go through her usual, formal introductions which makes me think she has already met Aphra.
“I understand you’ll be assisting me for a while.” Her smile changes and suddenly the joy isn’t quite as prominent. I study her face for a few seconds but I can’t discern what has changed. “I’m glad to have an apprentice for a little while – Calicone doesn’t let any more humans than needed come to Caunticali.”
“Coco is happy to be here, too is sure she will benefit from this, as well. We are hoping she’ll learn something from this experience,” Mother tells Aphra.
Aphra nods at Mother enthusiastically. “Oh, I’m sure she will.” I don’t think she was told that this is supposed to be a punishment. “Caunticali Exploration — that’s here — has some of the best researching devices in Calicone. It’s widely regarded as one of the best research stations in the city.”
Mother can’t like or dislike someone, but the way she tilts her head at Aphra ever so slightly makes me think that her enthusiasm for this project is not as great as the Scientist’s.
Regardless, she says, “We’re aware.” And she is. She knows everything. Aphra doesn’t need to tell her. Quickly, Mother switches tracks. “Chirari will be back to take her home at the end of the day. If there are any problems, you have our information.”
“Sounds good,” Aphra smiles.
Mother isn’t anticipating her response and so she has to turn back briefly to acknowledge Aphra. Then, she strides out of the room with perfectly paced steps.
I feel a little sorry for Mother as I watch her leave. I suddenly realize why it must be hard for her to interact with humans. How fast her system has to adjust to change around us. While Calicone and its inhabitants are built to be completely predictable, humans are not.
Anything could happen with them.
Maybe Aphra is thinking the same thing because her smile briefly falters as she watches Mother leave. There’s a look of curiosity and concentration in her eyes. I recognize it. I’ve seen it in my own eyes many times before. It’s awe and it surprises me.
Even though Aphra, as a Scientist, has most likely seen all that technology can offer, she’s still revering at it. I suppose everlasting curiosity is a must for a Scientist.
“Well, then,” she begins.
Her smile is there, but that change in her face that I noticed earlier has returned. That new emotion.
“I’m sure you’re eager to get started. How about I show you around?”
And as she walks away, I wonder if it’s sadness.
I quickly learn two things.
One: humans are not Caliconians.
This should have been obvious from the start and I initially thought it was. I know Caliconians. I know humans (myself). I know there is a difference.
But observing Aphra makes me question the second statement. I feel bewildered as she takes me around. She talks more than anyone I’ve met and her head and her hands move so much as she moves around and checks to make sure I’m still following her. She uses phrases like, “Oh, I forgot” and “Something important I should have told you earlier” and “Actually, let’s go this way”. There are several times where she pauses in her steps and I nearly crash into her.
I feel like we’ve walked everywhere twice— she keeps doubling back and stopping and starting and stopping and starting and stopping and starting. It makes me feel almost dizzy. Caliconians don’t do this. They have it all together — they knew where they are going, why they are going there, and how much time it will take to get there. I’ve spent the majority of my life stepping in others’ perfectly paved footsteps.
Now, I feel like I’m walking on thin ice — I’m just waiting to hear it crack again.
Two: Aphra does not own Caunticali Exploration. She is merely renting it for a little while for her experiments.
“I wanted to get it for at least five years, but they only gave me one, unfortunately, and it’s almost up,” Aphra tells me at a point. “It’s hardly enough, but I’m going to ask again soon and hope they change their mind,” she adds with a laugh but I don’t know why it’s funny. She does a double-take at me as if I’ve said something. I haven’t.
“You have a question,” Aphra says and stops walking in the middle of the long hallway.
I’m startled. Is it that obvious? Is that a problem? Have I always done that?
“Go ahead, ask. You don’t learn anything without asking.” There is a twinkle in her eyes, but I still hesitate. Her smile fades. “They probably don’t teach you that at home, do they.” It’s less of a question, more of a dismayed statement.
I shake my head. “Caliconians don’t need to ask questions. Everyone already knows everything.”
Aphra’s eyes narrow a little. “Mm…” She thinks about this for a few seconds, her eyes fixated on me, but I don’t think it’s me she’s seeing.
After a moment of silence, I decide it’s okay to ask my original question. “Why did they only give you a year?”
Aphra blinks, coming out of her trance, and then smiles, shrugging in mock amusement as she keeps walking. “I think they’d rather have someone more compliant. I’m not Caliconian enough for them.”
She’s not apologetic. Or upset. Or wistful.
She doesn’t care.
The fact mildly shocks me but I can’t ask about it, because she’s already moved on.
Day one goes well, but by the end of it, I’m exhausted.
Aphra must be able to tell because she says, “I bet you’re looking forward to going home and resting.”
I shrug very slightly because I’m not sure. So, I just say, “I have schoolwork to do when I get back.”
Her eyes brighten. They’re always bright. But I can tell the subject of the school makes her happy. “Oh, do you go to Designers of the Future?”
“Did you?” I ask tentatively.
Aphra nods. “Most Scientists do.” Her expression changes and once again, I can’t really tell what it is. Her voice sounds inquisitive, though. “I can imagine you’d like it. Most humans do. Why don’t you apply?”
She says it like it’s simple.
“Well, I don’t know if my parents would let me,” I say carefully. “They don’t approve…” I trail off, not knowing how to put it.
Aphra raises her eyebrows. “Humans?”
I feel a little guilty like I’m personally offending her. “Just the behaviour. They don’t think that it’s…good to stand out.”
“Well, then why’d they adopt a human child?” Aphra says, with a questioning smile. “Why didn’t they just get a Caliconian child?”
I shrug. “Mother says it was for an experiment. It was part of her purpose, to see how a human would interact if they were raised in Caliconian society. I guess she just wants to keep me Caliconian. I don’t mind,” I add. I’m lying, but I can’t tell her that. “I want to be just like Mother when I’m older.” That part isn’t a lie, but it is far from likely I’ll ever achieve it.
Aphra raises her eyebrows. “Just like your mother?” she repeats.
I nod. “As well as Chirari — my father — he doesn’t like it when I act human.”
“But that’s what you are. You can’t pretend you’re something you’re not.”
Aphra is looking at me with an expression that I take for curiosity and confusion like she understands but she doesn’t know why.
What is she trying to get at?
I shift uneasily. “I know.”
There’s a long pause and then Aphra smiles and nods slowly. Then, she tells me she’s going to see if my mother is here.
When she leaves, I consider my previous words.
Mother doesn’t ask me how my first or second day goes. In fact, she isn’t home when Chirari and I get back. Chirari says she’s still at work and doesn’t have time to hear my descriptions today.
He calls them my ‘descriptions’ because he thinks that anything I have to say is overly lengthy.
Mother takes me to Caunticali Exploration on the third day, though. We, once again, have to take the train there because I can’t use the Assembler. She uses one hand to hold me by my shoulder so I don’t fall when the train abruptly falls. She spares me that embarrassment, but her grip is so strong that when we get off, I’m certain my shoulder has been bruised.
There is no reason for her to speak so she says nothing the entire way there. I keep waiting for her to tell me what she wants me to learn with Aphra, for she never did. Or to tell me what I’m doing wrong. Just any indication. Why am I learning with a human scientist? What am I supposed to learn? Will she disapprove of what I did if I don’t ask, at the end of the week?
Something tells me that there is more behind this change than just an opportunity. It must be a gift that in some way is disguised as a punishment for my trouble in school. I just don’t know or see what that punishment is.
Mother says her usual greeting to Aphra, tells her Chirari will come to pick me up later, and then leaves. That’s it.
But I’m quickly drawn away from this fact after Aphra notices me rolling my shoulders back repeatedly.
“Tense?” she asks as she takes me to her desk to view some files.
I shake my head. I don’t want to complain to her.
“What is it, then?” There’s a strange tone to her voice and after a few moments, I realize it’s concern.
I can tell she won’t stop pressing so I tell her in the simplest way possible. “Mother had to hold onto me to stop me from falling on the train, but she held on a little too tight.”
Aphra frowns and makes me roll up my sleeve. I don’t know why. She’s not responsible. Why is she concerned?
I was right — a section of the side of my arm has already turned a darker colour with a purplish tinge. Mother’s nails also dug into my skin, leaving red marks where her fingertips were placed.
Aphra’s eyes turn to me, wide with concern. She stares for a few seconds and I guess she is thinking, but I’m not sure what about.
“All right, come with me,” she says after several moments. She turns and begins towards the door. Startled, I hesitate.
She looks back and stops when she sees me standing there. “What’s wrong?”
“Where are we going?” I ask. “Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not. We’re going to Designers of the Future,” she tells me.
That’s all it takes for me to hurry after her.
We walk, which I initially found strange until Aphra tells me that the school is only ten minutes away. I’m startled — I didn’t know it was so close and it feels strange to know that my dream school is only a little ways away from here.
“What are we doing there?” I ask her at some point while we walk. This part of the city is on the outskirts, and it’s not as busy. We don’t attract attention as we head through the paved roads and soaring but lonely skyscrapers.
“You’ll see,” Aphra tells me, with something of a determined smile.
When we do get there, I almost can’t make myself go in. I stop in front of the huge building, which stands out amongst the tall, generic skyscrapers that line the sky like walls. Until the school makes its appearance, the buildings are all identical.
Designers of the Future isn’t tall like the other buildings, but it’s wide, taking up two or three skyscrapers worth of space. It’s made of stone, which you don’t see often, and there are large, welcoming windows that let light into the front rooms. Its roof is of gleaming metal that curves up and down like a bumpy slide. I wonder what the inside looks like, with a roof like that.
We stride past the front gardens that have holographic signs hovering in the dirt, citing the work of various students. Aphra takes me past the receptionist’s desk and to the backrooms. She walks so fast and is so much taller than I am that I have to run to keep up. We pass students, many of who seem to know Aphra and greet her. She gives out smiles, high fives, and even turns, walking backwards to get in a few extra words with some of the kids as she hurries past.
Finally, we stop in front of a door that reads ‘STUDENT SUPPLIES’. Aphra knocks and then opens the door, ushering me in.
It looks like a happy waiting room. Some chairs line the sides of the walls and a sofa that sits in the corner next to a large window, which lets light shine over us. Our shadows dance across the shiny floor as we move. They are graceful and fluid, unlike the shadows Caliconians create, which are as stiff and restrained as their creators.
A boy sits behind a desk, scribbling slowly in a textbook. He looks up at us as we come in and smiles. He is not Caliconian
“Ms. Selverspun,” he greets Aphra, standing up. “How are you?”
“Good, thank you, Tai,” she says quickly. “I need to pick up some shoes for a friend of mine. Do you have any in stock?”
“Sure! Not like we’re ever running low. What size?”
Aphra glances at me and I look back, startled. What are we doing? What do shoes have to do with anything?
“How tall are you, Coco?” Aphra asks and then interrupts herself. “Oh, sorry. Tai, this is Coco Bryte. She’s working with me this week. Coco, this is Tai Iaendar. He mans the Student Supplies desk in his free time.”
I just nod at him quickly. An acknowledgment of his presence, which by Caliconian standards is greeting enough. I’m too confused to say anything else.
He glances at Aphra with an amused look on his face. “She’s not Caliconian, is she?”
I hate how obvious it is.
“No, brought up by Caliconians, though. Bryte Section,” Aphra says to Tai. “They created…” she prompts him with raised eyebrows.
“Assemblers,” Tai recalls and Aphra winks at him in confirmation.
“Getting around to your history books, then?”
“I hope so.” Aphra turns back to me. “So, Coco — do you know how tall you are?”
“5’2. Um, Aphra—”
“Two inches, then,” Tai says, cutting me off as he looks at Aphra. “Shoe size?”
“Coco, can I see your shoes?” Aphra requests.
I give it to her, but I still don’t understand what is happening and Tai and Aphra’s quick chatter is mildly overwhelming. In Caliconian society, there are formalities. Protocol when it comes to talking. Absence of interruptions. Here, Aphra and Tai are just bouncing off one another and I can’t keep up.
Tai takes my shoe from Aphra, studies it for a few seconds, and then nods. “Be right back.” He disappears through a door behind the desk and then he is gone.
I’m left standing on one foot with one shoe, staring at the door with my mouth half-open.
My expression must have been good because Aphra laughs.
“Something wrong?” she asks.
“Um…” The sound hangs in my mouth for a few moments before I get the rest of my sentence out. “What are we doing?”
Aphra gestures for me to sit down and I hop over, not wanting to get my barefoot dirty.
She grabs one of the chairs and has me sit on the sofa. She crosses her legs and leans forward to look at me. “Designers of the Future has this special shop for students. Calicone, as you know, only has two sizes of shoes, clothes, any kind of apparel — children and adults. Which works fine for them, because they’re all made the same, right? But humans come in all forms — Caliconian attire doesn’t work well for all of them. So, we have this shop that sells better fitting clothes. And — bonus — they’re much more colourful and prettier.”
I glance down at my outfit. It’s my school uniform, which is made up of light gray material. I only have two different outfits — this and my other set of clothes which are to be worn at home. It fits, but only because I work very hard to keep my weight at the right level, and even then, the pant legs and sleeves are too short because I can’t control my height.
“What do shoes have to do with it?” I ask. My shoes are adult-sized because I don’t fit the child ones anymore. They are flats and they’re a little too big, but other than that, they are all right.
“Because of places like trains,” she gestured to my shoulder, “sometimes being a different height than the norm is a problem. Naturally tall people have it easier on trains because they can hold into the straps, even if they’re a little taller than the norm. But for shorter people, like you, we have platform shoes, which would effectively make you 5’4 and thus, fit the train better.”
At this moment, Tai comes out of the backroom with four pairs of shoes. They’re slender boots and the sole is significantly thicker than my flats. Instantly, alarms go off in my mind as I see he has brought out four different colours: sea blue, forest green, violet, and a pretty, cherry red.
“Here, try these,” Tai says, placing the boots down in front of me. I stare.
“Oh…” my voice trails off. “Um, I don’t know if I can wear these…”
Tai looks at me in confusion. I can see he won’t understand. “Why not?”
I look at the boots again. I want to wear them. I want there to be more colour to me than my burning cheeks, but I can only imagine what Chirari would say. It would attract attention because colours aren’t the standard. There are so many different colours, so many different shades, hues, textures — they’re uncountable, whereas, in Calicone, it’s all black and white. Or, grey.
One more difference between humans and Caliconians.
Where do I want to be?
“Just try them on,” Aphra tells me. “You don’t have to wear them outside, just put them on and see what you think.”
After a moment of hesitation, I take off my other shoe and pull the boots on. They fit well, but they feel odd with the soles being so thick.
“How about you stand up,” Aphra suggests lightly.
I do and it’s strange as suddenly I’m two inches taller. Even then, though, I’m still not as tall as Aphra, who stands, too, and smiles.
I stare down at the shoes. I don’t know what to think.
“Well, it solves the train problem,” Aphra says after a few moments of silence.
“Oh, yeah,” Tai nods in confirmation. “Those will lock in just fine. You’d know — you have a pair, don’t you?”
Aphra gives him a side glance. “I’m not supposed to because I’m not a student or staff, but I do. I come here too often to not have something from the store.”
“You should just work here,” Tai tells her. “You’re here almost every week, anyway. And, there’s an opening…Professor Acaunti is retiring this semester…” he hints.
Aphra rolls her eyes at that, like it’s the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard, and shakes her head. “No. I have to focus on my experiment.” She glances back at me and does a little duck, trying to see my facial expression. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know how I’d explain it to my parents,” I say after a second, still staring at the shoes. I take a step. Surprisingly, the thick soles don’t weigh that much. “I don’t think they’d like it if I wore them home.”
“We don’t have to show him today,” Aphra says. “You can take the train back alone, couldn’t you?”
The idea makes me nervous. I’ve never gone anywhere alone. “I don’t think I could go back by myself.” And, to mask my fear, I add, “Chirari wouldn’t like it. He wouldn’t want to change his schedule. He’s already coming to pick me up.”
There’s a funny expression on Aphra’s face and I wonder if she knows I’m partially lying.
If she does, she doesn’t say anything about it and instead nods. “Okay. We’ll talk about it when we get back. For now,” and she turns to Tai, beaming, “thanks for your help, Tai. I’ll be back in a few days, so I’ll check in with you then if we both have a moment.”
“That’d be great, Ms. Selverspun,” Tai smiles back. “Will you take the shoes?”
Before I can say anything, Aphra says, “Yeah, I think we’ll take the red ones. Can you send Coco’s school shoes over in the Assembler?”
And before I can protest, Aphra is handing my other school shoe to Tai, who nods and takes them to the back, where they will apparently be transported to Caunticali Exploration.
Which means I have to walk back in bright red, cherry-coloured boots.
For a reason I don’t understand, Aphra seems intent on making me keep the boots.
They’re not bad to walk in, although I don’t get used to suddenly being two inches taller. I’m worried I’ll fall over, but I don’t even stumble and since these shoes actually fit, I don’t accidentally step out of either of them like I accidentally did with my school shoes on one occasion.
When we get back to the laboratory, Aphra decides she’s taking me home.
I’m instantly alarmed. “What?” I’m startled. “Why?” Did I do something wrong? Is she mad at me for not immediately liking the red boots? I’m wearing them, aren’t I?
It’s not that, though. She wants to take me home so I can try the shoes without Chirari or Mother being there to see them and so I don’t have to go by myself.
I want to question her. I don’t understand why she’d offer to take me home. It’s a forty-minute trip one way and I know she has other work to do.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Aphra tells me, shaking her head, even though I’ve said nothing. “It’s no issue.”
So we go. Suddenly, there are two disturbances on the train. Two flashes of colour in the sea of grey. At first, I’m nervous. Aphra is not. Or, if she is, she doesn’t show it, but I don’t think Aphra is the nervous type nor is she someone to hide her emotions. If she’s happy, you can practically feel it. If she finds something funny, she laughs. And when she’s worried, it shows.
She talks the entire way home. She asks me a million different questions and I realize she’s trying to get me to talk, too.
“But everyone’s looking at us,” I whisper to her. I don’t know why I’m whispering. Everyone can hear, anyway.
“Chances are you’re never going to see the majority of these people again,” Aphra reasons with me, gesturing around. She can’t turn well because her shoes are locked into the ground, but I get the message when she nearly hits someone in the face by accident. The Caliconian simply ducks backwards and Aphra says a quick apology before giving me an amused look. “See? He doesn’t care.”
“So what? Will he ever use the memory of me nearly slapping him? No. Chances are, he’ll never recall it again. These people aren’t responsible for you. As long as you don’t seriously mess anything up, they won’t react with much more than a glance.”
And after that, ours are the only voices, echoing through the silent train. It’s not so bad when you have someone to laugh and talk with you. I forget the bright red boots, the fact that we’re the only two humans, and when I accidentally let go of the straps for my arms and nearly fall over backwards, the embarrassment isn’t as bad when I have someone smiling and helping me instead of staring disapprovingly at me. She’s right — the other Caliconians look at me for a few seconds, and then they turn away, steering their minds back on track.
I’m almost sorry when the train stops and we have to get off.
A question occurs to me just before that, though. “You said you’d be back at Designers of the Future in a few days for something. What are you doing there?” Part of me wonders if I could go with her — when I was there today, everything happened so fast that I barely had time to process everything.
“Ah…” Aphra gives me a look but I can’t read it. “That. Well, you might be interested to know that I have a meeting scheduled early in the morning with the Caunticali Science Union there tomorrow. I put in a request for an extended time in the laboratory. I need it, to continue my work, so the fate of my future basically lies in that ten-minute meeting.” She laughs and it’s a real laugh.
She doesn’t seem worried. But I am.
“What happens if they say no?” I ask. My smile has faded.
“Uh, well,” she pauses like she hasn’t really thought about that part. “Then that’s it. I don’t have the resources anywhere else to continue, so I’d have to put everything on hold until I can find someplace else or unless I reapply and they give it back to me, but that would take a while. So, I’m just hoping to get this all over quickly and go back to work without having to worry about it.” She nods enthusiastically.
I dwell on this for the rest of the trip, and only when we arrive at my apartment do I momentarily forget about it.
“I don’t think my parents are home yet,” I say, after glancing inside. “If they were, they’d come to see who it is.”
“No, they’re probably still at work. I left a message for them at their offices and if they’re upset, just tell them it was all my idea. Blame it all on me – I don’t mind.”
I smile, because I know she’s telling the truth. She doesn’t mind. I wish I could be like that. But maybe I’ve worked my way towards that, a little, with the train ride.
“Thank you. For taking me back. I’m sure you had more important things to do —”
But Aphra waves me off. “Coco, don’t worry about it. This is my week off. If I get approved to stay, then I suddenly have a lot more time on my hands. And if I don’t, then there’s no point trying to cram everything into this one week. Just…” she glances down at my shoes, which I only then remember I’m still wearing. “Just wear your shoes for me, will you?”
I hesitantly nod. It’s a promise I want to make — for her and me — but I’m still worried about Mother and Chirari’s reactions. Diverting my eyes for a second can get me in trouble – who’s to say that red shoes won’t?
I don’t end up showing Mother and Chiari my shoes. At the last possible moment, I grab my school shoes and put them on just as I hear them returning.
Chirari disapproves of Aphra taking me home but I don’t get in trouble for it and I wonder what Aphra told them to manage that. I expected something along the lines of, “You could have said no. You could have stayed and done your work. You shouldn’t have wasted your time.”
There’s none of that and I’m grateful.
A question comes back to me, one that I had at the beginning, and I decide to ask Mother.
I creep into her office in the evening, where she is taking papers in. Like Aphra, she uses glasses to see the digital information.
“Mother, can I ask you something?” I say hesitantly, from the door.
Mother glances up and takes the glasses away from her face. She places them on her desk and they melt into the surface and turn into a 2D image there. “Yes, Coco?”
There’s a pause as I wonder how to phrase this. Then—
“What exactly do you want me to learn with Aphra? I only have two days left and I still don’t understand.”
Mother’s face breaks into a slight smile. After seeing all of Aphra’s smiles, though, Mother’s seems much more artificial. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll learn something at the end of it.”
“Is there anything else?” she asks lightly.
After a few moments, I shake my head. “No. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Coco.”
With that, she turns back to her desk and pulls her glasses out. There’s another short pause and then I turn to go back to my room. As I sit in my room in the dark, I wonder what she means.
‘At the end of it.’
It has such an ominous tone; it sounds almost human.
The fourth day passes without problem.
I wake up alone to my alarm and I’m confused when I don’t find Mother or Chirari there to take me to see Aphra.
I’m even more surprised when the very Scientist shows up at my front door, saying she’s here to take me. She’s arranged something with Mother and Chirari and now she’s taking me there and back.
“What did you tell them?” I ask in wonder. Aphra’s human — I’m surprised they have such trust in her.
“It didn’t take a lot, actually,” Aphra tells me, smiling in amusement at my amazement. “Maybe they think you’re getting old enough to make some of your own decisions.”
I’d like to think that’s the actual reason, but something tells me that’s not it. I can’t place my finger on what is, though, and it stays on my mind the entire day.
We don’t stay at Caunticali Explorations, though. We go to Designers of the Future again, where Aphra takes me on a tour of the school. My heart aches, because this is the place I want to be. It’s as open-minded and as lighthearted as Aphra.
I laugh along with her at her jokes and stories of her time at the school, but she notices how quickly my smile fades and guesses the reason.
“You should come here, Coco,” she says and stops in one of the classrooms. She looks me in the eye and I know she’s serious. “I think you’d really enjoy it. I know I did.”
I nod, avoiding her eyes. “Maybe someday.”
Aphra smiles sadly at me. “Someday never comes, Coco. The only time for action is now. If you keep telling yourself that, it’ll never happen.”
At one point, she takes me to a small room that is built for presentations. “This is where they’ll be deciding my fate tomorrow,” she tells me, with mock wide eyes.
“Tomorrow?” I repeat in surprise and Aphra nods. There is a sudden lurch in my stomach as my worry for her returns.
She sees the change in emotion and pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. That’s my job.” But she doesn’t seem concerned at all.
This time, it’s me who tries to smile, but I know I’m not doing a good job and so instead, I ask a question. “So, who gets to decide whether or not you get to stay?”
“Reason does. Logic. Priorities. The usual.” Her face brightens as she adds, “Actually, your Mother is on the Union. I think she mentioned to me that she’ll be here when they decide.”
Is that why she’s so confident? Because my Mother is on the Caunticali Scientific Union? Does she think that, because Mother sent me here, that Mother sees Aphra’s potential? Maybe that’s true, but I can’t help but doubt her upon hearing this knowledge. Why didn’t Mother tell me about this? I don’t know and it casts a cloud of uncertainty over me.
Aphra takes me home again and tells me that she won’t be able to come and get me tomorrow morning because of her meeting.
“That’s okay,” I say, but secretly, my heart falls. That means I probably won’t be going to Caunticali Exploration tomorrow at all, then. Chirari is busy in the morning and it sounds like Mother will be, too. “Will you tell me what happens, then?” I ask hesitantly.
Aphra nods enthusiastically. “For sure! Yeah, definitely.”
We’re both smiling. I’m acting as if I’m certain she’ll win. She’s acting the same way, but I have a feeling she actually believes it. For her sake, I try to stay happy. Or, at least, happy-looking.
Maybe she doubts herself, too, or maybe she’s just feeling sentimental because she asks if she can give me a hug. I let her. It feels odd but welcoming, at the same time. Neither Mother nor Chirari hugged me much past my toddler years and I don’t really know how to do this. But Aphra’s warm, soft, smells like sunshine and rain at the same time, and her hair falls over the top of my head like a golden curtain. All of a sudden, I just want to stay there forever.
“I hope they let you keep the laboratory,” I tell her. I’m half mumbling because my face is partially pressed into her shoulder.
Aphra hears me anyway and as she pulls away, she smiles at me. “Yeah, me too.”
But I’m scared she won’t and it gets to me. I feel a painful lump rise in my throat and I realize I’m going to start crying soon if I’m not careful — I haven’t cried in a long time. But, I realize, I care about Aphra. I don’t want her dream to end, like mine.
Then again, I think to myself, mine never even started.
I end up going to Designers of the Future with Mother the next day. I didn’t realize I would be going and I’m confused when she wakes me up in the morning to take me on the train.
“Well, you have to. It’s your last day,” she reasons with me.
“I know, I just thought that since Aphra is busy—”
She doesn’t let me finish that thought and before I know it, we’re on the train. Mother is dressed up formally today, in a completely white outfit with various badges of recognition and achievement attached to her front. She doesn’t fit in on the train compared to the other people, for whom it’s just another day of work.
I finally dare to wear my shoes. It’s a flash of red, some Mother makes no comment, but I know she notices. I bear it, though, and tell myself it’s for Aphra. I have hope, now. Mother wouldn’t be so cruel to bring me if she knew that they were going to deny Aphra’s request.
We get to Designers of the Future and the anxiety builds up inside me like water against a dam.
“You’ll be with me. I’ve asked for you to sit in on this,” Mother tells me.
Suddenly, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here if Aphra loses the laboratory. I don’t know how she’ll react and it scares me. But I can’t object to Mother and I follow her into the meeting room Aphra had shown me the day previous.
Aphra’s already in there, sitting across from a panel of Caliconians who are observing her heavily. She sees me and does a double-take. I smile weakly. As an afterthought, I make a little gesture with my foot in her direction and she notices my shoes and her eyes widen and she beams at me. Mother glances at me, noticing, but as Aphra smiles at me, I find I don’t mind quite as much.
I sit next to Mother and soon, the meeting begins.
They go through formalities. Introductions. Names. Titles. Et cetera.
Until finally, the lead, a Caliconian male whom I don’t know, says, “When directly addressing Aphra L. Selverspun’s request for an extension of time in Caunticali Exploration, we have come with our decision, based on our evaluation of the importance of Ms. Selverspun’s mission.”
Aphra and I are the only two people in this room who require oxygen to function.
And I can tell, at this moment, we’re both holding our breath.
Until the Caliconian’s voice booms out.
Every following second seems to cause another drop of shock to fall into my stomach, a drop that causes ripples and makes it ten times worse.
I stare, not understanding. I just sit there for a few minutes while the others go over more formalities, digital documents, et cetera, et cetera.
After a few moments, I think to look at Aphra. She’s just standing there. She doesn’t look shocked. She looks defeated. The energy from her is gone as the Caliconians go on.
I look at Mother, who looks back at me inquisitively. I don’t understand why.
I don’t understand any of this.
Finally, it’s over and people begin moving out of the room. Aphra’s first and she disappears before I can catch her. Not that I have the feeling in my legs to do so. My feet in my red boots feel numb. I can’t believe Aphra lost.
Mother pulls me up and I stagger to my feet as she leads me out. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.
Until a familiar face passes me, with a confused and worried look.
He mouths something at me, and I’m sure it’s a question about Aphra. But I don’t answer, because seeing another human brings some sort of momentary clarity.
At that moment, I don’t care that some of the most important people in Calicone are around me. I turn and I bolt in the direction I think that Aphra has gone. Mother doesn’t object. Or maybe she did and I didn’t hear it.
My boots are noisy against the floor as I race through the halls. I don’t notice.
Students stop to ask me if I’m all right. I brush them off, looking for Aphra.
I stop. There’s one room — a classroom — that isn’t lit up like the others.
I pause and peer inside the window in the door. It’s too dark to see anything but after a few seconds, I hear something. When I realize it’s Aphra and that she’s crying, my heart breaks for her. I silently let my forehead fall against the door, closing my eyes as I try to figure out what to do.
“That’s what being human is about, Coco.”
I jump and turn around as the new voice speaks. I turn and see it’s Mother, hands folded against her front and watching me through her glasses. There is no sympathy in her voice as she speaks. She steps towards me and reaches forward, once again fingering the front strands of my hair in her fingers.
My hair slips through her fingers and one of her nails gently brushes against the side of my face. “It can be about happiness. It can be about joy.” She pauses and glances at the door, where Aphra is. “But it’s also about disappointment and sadness. There isn’t room for difference in Caliconian society. Not for people like her. But maybe…maybe for people like you.” She stares at me and rests her hands on my shoulders. With my red shoes, I’m now the same height as her, but that’s the only common ground we have. “Maybe…for Caliconians like you.”
There is a long, deathly silent pause, punctuated only by Aphra’s quiet crying.
And that’s when I realize what this was all about.
My time in Caunticali Exploration — my time with Aphra — it wasn’t about learning Science. It wasn’t about observing discoveries. It wasn’t a blatant punishment or a gift.
No, it was something much more subtle than that.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll learn something at the end of it.”
“At the end of it.”
Mother sent me to Aphra to watch her struggle. To watch her eventually lose. To watch her cry, defeated, behind a door in the dark. To see that as a human — as someone different — I would never win.
“Oh, Coco.” Mother frowns and reaches forward, flicking my cheek. I realize something else — I’m crying. Or rather, tears are falling down my face as I stare. “Don’t cry. Don’t you understand? Do you want to end up like her?”
For a long time, I say nothing.
Of course not. I don’t want to end up defeated. I don’t want to end up alone. I don’t want to feel lost in the darkness.
But I want to be like Aphra.
I want to smile when I’m happy, laugh when I’m amused, cry when I need to, make my share of mistakes, shape my own path, walk in my own time, act the way I want, be the person I am.
Mother raises her eyebrows at my silence. “Well, do you?”
Finally, I speak.
“Yes. I do.”
And with that, I turn and open the door, slipping behind it and sliding down next to Aphra. She stops crying momentarily to look at me, and though she can’t see very well in the dark, I know she can tell it’s me.
“Oh, Coco,” Aphra whispers. “I didn’t want you to have to see this…” I can’t see her very well, because there are no windows here, but I can hear her sadness. I feel it in my own heart. “I didn’t want to see this…I was so sure they’d approve me…” The energy that she had radiated before has escaped her. I can see it in her posture, how every breath she takes seems to drag her down even further.
“I know,” I whisper back. “I’m sorry. For everything.”
Aphra sighs shakily. “It’s okay.”
“No. It’s not,” I say simply. “But it will be.”
There’s a few seconds of silence. She knows something has changed and she asks about it.
“Did something happen to you, Coco?” she says in a strange voice.
I smile sadly. “Well, I realized something.”
I can feel a small light growing inside Aphra, that everlasting curiosity, again as she asks, “And what’s that?”
“Remember what I said, in the laboratory on the first day? I said I wanted to be just like Mother. Well, I’ve changed my mind.”
“Oh, goodness, Coco…”
She reaches forward and wraps her arms around me, burying her face in my hair. I hug her back and by her reaction, I know she knows what I’m going to say, but I say it anyway.
“I don’t want to be like Mother.” I glance up at the door. I don’t know if she’s still there, on the other side of the door. But that’s always where she’ll be, on the other side. I’ll never be on the same level as her, the same side of the road. A while ago, I couldn’t accept that, but now, I think I can.
“I think you’re brilliant, Aphra. You’ve taught me more than any text, teacher, or book I ever read. I want to be just like you.”
Aphra takes a deep breath and then says, “No, Coco. You get to be whoever you want to be.”
“I know.” And that’s the truth. But I do ask quietly, just to check, “Are you okay?”
Aphra takes a moment to respond. “Yes. And no.”
“Me too, Aphra,” I say. “Me too.”
A week later, I’m back at Designers of the Future.
I applied for the new semester. I got in. And, as Aphra said, I love it.
I love the school, with its creativity and its light. I love the people there, who almost always greet you with a genuine smile. It’s drastically different than Calicone. People are happy, sad, change their mind, change it again, mess up, fix their mistakes, wear the brightest colours they want — it’s brilliant.
However, less than two weeks in one early morning, I’m late to one of my first classes.
Adapting to this new schedule is hard. I tell myself this as I dash down the hallways at top speed.
I slow when I reach the door and catch my breath as I slip inside.
The class is on Caliconian Society. The class comes highly recommended because understanding the way the world works is important, even if you’re never a part of it. I have my firsthand knowledge but it’s different, looking from the outside.
Then again, wasn’t I always an outsider?
I slide into a seat in the auditorium, which is huge and shaped like a half a cone. Seats line the round side of the cone, spiraling tens of feet downwards and screens cover the other side of the wall. They’re lit up and displaying someone, but I’m too harried to see it properly.
I sit at the bottom of the cone because it’s the easiest part of the seating area to access. It’s also right next to the speaker podium, which is near the floor with a large desk and camera.
I’m in such a hurry to sit down so I don’t miss any more of the class that I don’t even notice who the speaker is until she calls out to me.
“Coco! There you are!”
I glance up from trying to fix my hair and look at the speaker’s podium for the first time. With a jolt, I realize who it is.
She’s smiling at me, standing in the spotlight less than ten meters away. Her hair is fixed up in a ponytail and her eyes have regained that alert brightness. She’s wearing glasses, the kind that lets you see information and holograms that only you can see. Like Mother’s.
But she is nothing like Mother.
All the students on my level of the auditorium turn to look at me. A few students I know well — including Tai — smile and wave at me. I give a distracted gesture back, but I’m too surprised to greet them properly. What’s Aphra doing here?
She didn’t tell me she’d be here. In fact, I haven’t heard from her at all since the day she lost Caunticali Exploration. Something told me to give her space.
“I almost thought you weren’t coming,” Aphra tells me. Her voice booms out from the hidden speakers in the huge auditorium, but she’s only talking to me. Like always, she doesn’t care that almost a hundred other students are watching.
And now, neither do I.
“Well — uh — I was — see — I — I was late,” I try to explain. I trip over my words, confused. “I didn’t—what are you —”
“Well, I’m glad you made it. We’re just going over the boring stuff right now — contact information, course outcomes, et cetera et cetera. Sit down. Relax.”
I glance at Tai, who’s sitting a little bit away, bewildered. He just winks at me and looks back at Aphra.
That’s when I understand. I recall the conversation Aphra and Tai had the day I got my red boots. How Aphra admitted she came to Designers of the Future often.
How Tai said she should just work there.
“And, there’s an opening…Professor Acaunti is retiring this semester…”
I glance back at Aphra and I feel an odd kind of joy washing over me. I lean forward and listen, just as she moves on to information about the course.
“Now, about the course itself. I know this is a popular course because you need it to understand how Caliconian Society operates when you graduate. I know most of you have never even stepped into the inner city limits, so this is advice for you.”
Although she seems energetic and happy, the energy changes as she clears her throat and pauses, staring at her desk for a few seconds.
There’s silence for a few seconds, long enough that I wonder if something is wrong.
Then, she puts her glasses back in the desk and looks up.
“We, as humans, have a unique place in Calicone,” she begins. “We have the ability to shape the future, for we are the only ones with a mind open enough to change, innovate, and improve the world around us. Calicone doesn’t easily accept this — it runs on consistency and any disruption, any difference, or any change is far from welcome. If you are brave and bold enough to disregard this and shape Calicone to your vision, then I applaud and congratulate you.” She pauses and glances down at her notes, though I have a feeling she isn’t really seeing them. “But I also offer you a warning. While lack of confidence can hold you back, overconfidence can cloud your judgement. If you have been as lucky as I have in life, having very few obstacles and disruptions, then you may forget that one day you might not be so fortunate. I lost Caunticali Exploration because I believed too much in myself and my abilities. Pride and overconfidence can blind us on occasion, and we have to remind ourselves to acknowledge our differences fully. Both the brilliance of our uniqueness, and the obstacles that will accompany us as a result. I forgot the latter when taking pride in the former, and I know many people who do the opposite.”
For a moment, I see her eyes flutter to me and I wonder, for a second, if this is her way of telling me that I wasn’t the only one who learned something about differences.
Her smile returns after a moment of silence. Then, she continues on. “So, this course is about striking a balance between those two. I, as a Scientist in Calicone, have much I want to tell, show, and share with you. However, I would be far from surprised if you all learned more from each other.” She smiles at all of us. “Now, if you’ll all turn to page 30 of your texts, I want to read you something…”
At the end of the class, Aphra asks me to stay behind. Once everyone else is gone, she gestures for me to come up to the speaker’s podium and we sit on the steps.
“So,” she says and makes herself comfortable, crossing her legs to support her elbow and holding her chin in her hand as she looks at me. “It’s been a few weeks. Tell me how school has been.” Her eyes sparkle and I start from the moment I decided to apply.
I made this announcement to my parents when I heard you could apply for the second semester. I remembered Aphra’s words: “Someday never comes.” The clock was ticking. I had to tell them.
So I did. And they displayed no emotion, of course. They accepted my decision, maybe because this was the next logical decision for my future. But I remember Mother and how she said it was part of her purpose to raise a human child as a Caliconian.
At first, I could just hear the ‘FAILURE’ alarm go off in her head.
Coco Bryte, the failed experiment.
Maybe to them. But not to me. For me, I’m a success. A success to myself, for finally speaking for myself. For finally accepting myself.
I think that’s all that really matters now.